366 years old, the Jewish community of the Caribbean island of Curaçao welcomed a permanent Chabad presence for the first time, with the arrival of Rabbi Refoel and Chani Silver.
From Chabad.org by Musia Gurevitch:
Curaçao has been home to a Jewish community since 1651, when a small group of settlers in search of economic opportunity—descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had settled in the Netherlands after being expelled from their homes in 1492—set sail to this Dutch island in the Caribbean. The tight-knit Sephardic community quickly settled into their new world, and by 1732 had built a magnificent synagogue, Mikvé Israel, which still stands today and is visited daily by hundreds of tourists.
According to local tradition, the first Ashkenazi Jew came to Curaçao by accident. A man dreaming of the New World boarded a boat in the mid-1920s for America. Little did he know that when the captain welcomed his passengers to land, he was welcoming them to an island in the Caribbean, not their final destination of New York City. Realizing that there was room for growth and success on the small island, he wrote to his family back home, and a second community began to form.
The Jewish population received a major boost not long afterwards when they were joined by relatives who had survived the Holocaust, bringing the Ashkenazi community to its peak size of 230 families.
The two Jewish communities retained separate synagogues with their own respective customs and traditions. For many years, religious life on the island was vibrant with both communities boasting large memberships. But over time, Jewish life had begun to decline.
One constant lifeline throughout the years, however, has been the presence of Chabad-Lubavitchrepresentatives. Already in the 1940s, the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—began dispatching traveling rabbinical students to isolated communities around the globe laden with heavy suitcases of Torah literature and Judaica materials, boundless energy and vibrant Jewish knowledge. Since the 1950s, the Caribbean islands, including Curaçao, have received regular visits.
‘Sent by the Rebbe’
Eli Groisman grew up in Curaçao in the 1980s. “There were no Jewish schools on the island at the time; I attended the Protestant school,” relates Groisman, today a Chabad Chassid. “I had a very difficult time at school. Although I was brought up in a non-observant household, I stubbornly refused to participate in the religious services and classes that were part of the school curriculum. Non-Jewish students picked daily fights with me, and I even felt that my teachers and the school principal were taking their side.”
Groisman ultimately left the educational institution. But it distressed his father, Chaim Groisman, who recalls that one night, he dreamed that he saw himself at the age of 3, sitting on his grandmother’s lap. She was saying to him: “Liuvu [Russian for ‘my love’], anytime you are in trouble, the one who can help you is the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”
This was the first time, says Groisman, that he had ever heard of the Rebbe.
The next day, he walked into the tiny Ashkenazic synagogue and poured out his heart in prayer. When he exited the shul, he met a rabbi who introduced himself as MosheKotlarsky. The rabbi asked him for directions, then said: “We were sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We want to get to know the Jewish people here.”
“My father told Rabbi Kotlarsky about our family’s plight and introduced me to him,” continues the son. “My first question to Rabbi Kotlarsky was, ‘Are you allowed to defend yourself if someone comes up and punches you?’ I had formed an impression from movies and TV shows on the Holocaust that Jews were weak and didn’t fight back when attacked. Rabbi Kotlarsky responded, ‘You make sure that you defend yourself and do such damage that they won’t come back to you!’ I thought this rabbi was cool.”
Eli Groisman flew to New York that summer to attend Camp Gan Israel in the Catskills. In September, he started yeshivah studies.
‘Already Doing Amazing Things’
Twenty years ago, Rabbi Ariel and Ruhama Yeshurun moved to Curaçao to lead the Ashkenazic community. Under the rabbi’s leadership, the beautiful Shaarei Tsedek Jewish Center was built. But the rabbi and his wife left in 2011 and, in recent years, the 350 Jews of Curaçao were left with synagogues—one very old and one very new, but no rabbi.
Visiting Chabad rabbinical students continued to run programs and holiday services several times a year (including meeting with the prime minister in 2014), but a permanent presence was needed.
That presence came in the form of Rabbi Refael and Chani Silver (who grew up in New York and Paris, respectively), and their infant daughter, Chaya.
“Our community was shrinking,” shared Ivan Becher, president of the Shaarei Tsedek Jewish Center. “But after meeting Rabbi Refoel Silver, and his lovely wife and child, I am hopeful we will be growing again. I believe Chabad brings success.”
The Silvers landed in Curaçao a week before Rosh Hashanah. They will serve Shaarei Tsedek and cater to the needs of the entire Jewish population of Curaçao: Sephardic, Ashkenazic, the unaffiliated, tourists and everyone in between.
During their first month there, the Silvers greeted 75 Jews for Rosh Hashanah services and dinner, fasted and commemorated Yom Kippur with the Jewish community, and hosted the island’s first-ever “Sushi and Scotch” Sukkot party. Chani Silver initiated another Curaçao first: A challah bake attended by about 30 Jewish women on the island.
“Tourism has expanded in recent years,” reports the rabbi, “especially in the past year with more direct flights being added and the construction of an additional pier for cruise ships. We have already met hundreds of Jewish tourists from all across the world.”
In the coming weeks, the Silvers will launch programs such as “Mommy & Me,” weekly lunch-and-learns, and classes for both men and women.
“We are very happy that the Silvers have come,” says island resident Armand Elmaleh. “Already, they are doing amazing things.”
The rabbi was introduced to the prime minister of Curaçao, Eugene Rhuggenaath, for what was initially to be a five-minute meeting; it lasted nearly an hour. Rhuggenaath revealed that he was impressed by Chabad’s plans to mobilize the extended Jewish communities on the island, and foster religious growth among residents and tourists.
“This is all very exciting. The Silvers fit Curaçao like a glove,” says Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, co-director of Chabad of Puerto Rico. “They come with enthusiasm and vigor, and the community has embraced them lovingly.”
Chani Silver notes that their weekly Shabbat table has been very diverse, with 10 to 15 guests every week. “Around one table, we had an 87-year-old woman believed to be the first Ashkenazi Jew born in Curaçao, a Sephardic Jew whose family has been in Curaçao for 300 years, Israeli Jews who just moved here for business and tourists who are visiting the island,” she says.
“We are trying to reach every single Jew,” adds her husband, “from the families who have been here for hundreds of years to the tourists who wander in, not knowing much about their Judaism. We are here for every one of them.”